Marc Jacobs: A Conversation with Robert Duffy

  • David Hellqvist talks to the financial brain behind Marc Jacobs about his relationship with the designer and the role he’s taking in driving the brand forwardrobertduffy by Robin Sinha
    Words David Hellqvist
    Photography Robin Sinha

    Ask any creative person trying to make a living from design or art what the hardest part of their working life is and they’ll probably tell you it’s the business side of the company that keeps them awake at night. Keeping track of numbers and can be difficult at the best of times but try simultaneously putting together a collection and you’re most likely in trouble. So it must have been a relief for Marc Jacobs when he, 28 years ago, met and befriended Robert Duffy. Ever since that day, as president of the company, the tall, broad shouldered and silver haired collaborator has helped build Marc Jacobs into what it is today, a worldwide, powerful fashion force. “Our working relationship is pretty much the same now as when we met. We go through periods of spending a lot of time together, everyday for months at a time, and then we go through periods where we need our space – I think we’re like a married couple that has weathered so many storms and we are happy, comfortable with each other now,” Duffy says, sitting in the basement of London’s Marc by Marc Jacobs store where he has travelled to launch the latest BookMarc store.

    The two met at Jacob’s graduation dinner after leaving fashion school. Duffy attended to spy himself a new and exciting designer to collaborate with. “I was working at a very large 7th Avenue manufacturing company at the time, they owned various designers and brands. I really wanted to leave but they wanted me to stay and asked me find a designer that I wanted to back. They agreed to support that as long as I worked on the other designers as well.” Duffy interviewed scores of potential collaborators (“some of who are quite famous now!”) but with no luck. “I wanted to meet someone young that was just out of school but I was a little frustrated because I didn’t feel like I had met the person that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I was willing to put every ounce of energy and blood, sweat and tears into it!”

  • At the graduation show, Duffy saw Marc Jacobs present, among other garments, three grunge-inspired sweaters that stood out to him: “They had really long sleeves and holes in them. The sleeves came in strange colours and weird patterns — I really loved the proportions, it looked like you had an old sweater that was all stretched out of shape.” Duffy knew straight away that he had found his partner. “I called the school the next day and asked them to put us in touch. Marc called me back and we met that day and had lunch and shook hands. The next day we started working together.” Since then, from the early days of putting the business together, Duffy is more of a creative partner to Jacobs, rather than just number cruncher. It’s Duffy who has developed their retail concepts — such as Marc by Marc and BookMarc — and he oversees part of the creative process, as well as the business side. “I get involved with the designers on certain issues and wehave a great creative director overall for the whole of Marc by Marc. I work with the menswear designer on special projects and things like BookMarc.”But one wonders, even though the pair has a good and healthy relationship, if there have ever been times when they’ve not got along? “Oh yeah, there has been a couple. Mostly they had to do with his addiction problems but those days are long gone and that hasn’t been an issue for years. There have been other times when we haven’t agreed on something, but those have been the only occasions that I’ve ever come close to say ‘that’s it’.” Of late, there have been other issues and decisions putting pressure on the pair. Last year there was speculation about Marc going for the top job at Dior. Duffy confirms such talks took place and that Jacobs contemplated moving over from Louis Vuitton where he’s been creative director since 1997. “We went througha lot of stuff back and forth when they wanted Marc to do Dior and, I mean, he was asked but said no.” Did Duffy think he should have taken the job? “No, not really. I was asked if I thought he could do it, and I said ‘yes’. It was really complicated because he didn’t really want to do it and they were really happy with the choice that they made, so everything came out great. Marc really wanted to stay at Louis Vuitton and I just want him to do whatever makes him happy, and that was all that I was saying to him all along.”

    So why was Marc upset? “I think that he felt that because when I was asked if I thought that he was capable of doing that and I said ‘yes’, he thought that meant I wanted him to do it, and that’s not what I meant at all, but we straightened it all out in the end and it worked out just fine. But, I know it sounds so silly now, we had a big fight over it.”

  • Robert Duffy is also the man behind Marc Jacob’s third line, the very reasonably priced accessories and T-shirts that MJ stores all over the world carries: “Yes, I always wanted three different lines… but I was not allowed to do a third line so I basically did it anyway!”When they started selling these products, some industry insiders and retail observers thought it would have a negative effect on the label in the long run by cheapening the brand; Marc Jacobs are supposed to sell expensive handbags and coats, not TK Maxx-priced belts. Clearly that was not the case. “Yeah, people thought that it would damage the name but it didn’t. We have hada lot if people write in about it and ask: ‘how can you maintain your image?’ and I say, ‘we can maintain our image because what you are buying is the real deal and it is still very well-made’”.

    Another factor behind the success is that, even though it’s cheap, the products are still only available in selected Marc Jacobs stores. Ironically, they are cheap and exclusive. “It’s only carried in our stores but you can go to any airport or any country in the world and find every designer handbag known to mankind form any company. But you can’t find our £15 flip-flops anywhere but in our store.Robert Duffy, Marc Jacobs

    Obviously we know that there are men who will come in and buy a cashmere suit or a fur-lined coat and spend big money but they don’t necessarily want a pair of flip-flops that cost £400. The consumer is not stupid, they’re are just not.” And, it appears, neither are you, Robert Duffy.